Legendary Czech Film Studio Barrandov and 85 Years of Cinema.
Visitors on their way to Barrandov Studio, the largest film studio in the Czech Republic and one of the largest in Europe, may at first be struck by the impressive rock formations that surround the area. Located in the district of Hlubočepy in south-west Prague, the studio is set among fossil-rich cliffs overlooking the Vltava river. One can imagine it as a setting for an action film scene, with a stunt performer scaling the cliffside in pursuit of a villain.
Perhaps it is fitting that the nearby sound stages of Barrandov Studio have served as the location for numerous Hollywood action thrillers, from Mission Impossible and The Bourne Identity to Casino Royale. More than 5,000 Czech and international productions have been created at the studio, including the recent Oscar winner Jojo Rabbit.
Though the studio has been operational for more than 85 years, its exterior remains mostly unchanged since its construction in 1933. Barrandov’s history is closely connected to the Havel family, thanks to the business activities of the brothers Miloš Havel and Václav Maria Havel, the father of former Czech president Václav Havel. In 1921, Miloš created the A-B Joint Stock Company by merging his own American Film distribution company with Biografia film distributors. At the beginning of the 1930s, with his brother Václav, Miloš moved the original A-B Studios from a brewery in Vinohrady to facilities designed by Czech functionalist architect Max Urban.
The first Czech film, Murder on Ostrovni Street, was shot at the studio 14 months after its completion. Soon the studio was making up to 80 productions a year and attracting foreign production companies, like UFA, MGM, and Paramount, which developed their own distribution systems in Czechoslovakia because of Barrandov’s success. However, in the 1940s, with the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany, the Nazis sought to invest in making Barrandov part of an interconnected network of film studios, along with those in Berlin and Munich. According to political theorist John Keane, author of Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, the Nazis seized a 51% stake in Barrandov, such that the original Czech corporation was liquidated and replaced by Prag-Film, a German front company. Some studio employees and actors of Jewish descent, such as Czech actor Hugo Haas, fled or remained quiet about Nazification for fear of retribution. Others, like Czech-Austrian film star Lída Baarová, who famously was the mistress of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, collaborated with the Nazis.
Keane writes that Miloš, on the other hand, was “disgusted by facism” and worked “diplomatically behind the scenes to ensure the survival of Czech cinema – without soiling either his own or its reputation by manufacturing propaganda.” Miloš managed to shield many Czech film stars from working in Nazi productions and, though the number of Czech productions declined during this period, he was able to get 32 Czech films produced between 1939 and 1944. One of the most popular productions was Babička (The Grandmother), based on the 19th-century novel by Božena Němcová. Stories like Babička, considered a classic piece of Czech literature, helped preserve Czech culture during this period of Germanisation.
After the war, during the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, President Edvard Beneš signed Edict No. 50, which saw Barrandov Studio revert back to state ownership. Miloš went to live in Munich and never returned to Czechoslovakia. Only four years later, after the Communist coup, Barrandov once again became a locus for propagandists. Nevertheless, native talent was able to flourish, especially in the 1960s with the emergence of directors like Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, Ivan Passer, and Jiří Menzel. These Czech filmmakers ushered in a period now referred to as the Czech New Wave, a period characterised by films such as Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies) and Forman’s Hoří, má panenko (The Fireman’s Ball), which lampoon communist ideology by showing its rigidity and essential incompatibility with Czech society. However, the blossoming of talent during the Prague Spring came to an abrupt end with the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Filmmakers like Forman, emigrated and continued their careers in exile. Barrandov Studio faced hardship in the following years.
The fall of communism in 1989 brought change to the former Soviet bloc and ushered in a new era for the studio. A return to the private sector brought new development to Barrandov, including a 4,000m2 studio, making it one of the largest studios in Europe. Fiscal incentives for foreign productions, governed by the Act on Audiovisual Works and Support for Cinematography, helped to boost the film industry. In 2016, the Czech Republic made a change to its incentives scheme to attract more foreign producers. The current incentives scheme offers a 20% rebate on qualifying Czech spend and up to a 10% rebate on qualifying international spend. While other European countries offer an even higher rebate, such as Hungary and Poland’s at 30%, the incentives have proven to be profitable. According to the Czech Film Fund, Czech film incentives brought in approximately $390 million to the economy in 2019, double the amount raised in the previous year.
Despite the incentives boon to the Czech film industry, global film production has been greatly disrupted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. According to The Hollywood Reporter, some analysts estimate that the effects of COVID-19 on the industry have already resulted in a $5 billion loss. Recently, despite production in the United States and England having largely stopped, Barrandov released a statement announcing that filming in their offices and stages would resume. The studio is working in compliance with the Czech government and Audiovisual Producers Association (APA) to implement “safety rules for operating in this challenging period.” Nevertheless, it’s clear that the production process, from catering to hiring extras, will need to change in order for the industry as a whole to move forward safely.
Those worried about the future of Barrandov Studio need only to look to its past. From Nazi takeover to communist occupation, the studio’s story is one of perseverance. The challenges it faces today are among many that the studio has endured. As the sound stages reopen and the cameras begin filming again at Barrandov, we can expect to see our lives and the human experience mirrored back to us on the big screen.